Fire, Explosion & Collapse: Firefighters Trapped - Part 2

Last month, we began a report about an incident involving the Salem and Pennsville fire departments in New Jersey in which firefighters were trapped after a backdraft occurred during a structure fire. We continue the report this month with accounts by two...


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Last month, we began a report about an incident involving the Salem and Pennsville fire departments in New Jersey in which firefighters were trapped after a backdraft occurred during a structure fire. We continue the report this month with accounts by two participants and my commentary on the incident.

This account is by Pennsville Firefighter John Boos (Charlie Division):

On our arrival on Quint 5-6, we found medium smoke showing. As our crew of a driver and five firefighters exited the vehicle, we split up. Battalion Chief Boxer was assigned to Charlie Command, Firefighter Gary Jess and I stretched a 1¾-inch handline, and Firefighters Brandon Dilks and Mike Toms placed ground ladders to the roof of the fire building and the Bravo Exposure. Once the ground ladders were in place, Firefighters Dilks and Toms performed horizontal ventilation on four boarded-up windows.

At this time, the fire had self-vented through the roof of the two-story business/apartments, and the smoke had darkened and started to forcefully push out of the windows in the rear. I started to flow water into one of the windows where fire was visible. After approximately five minutes of water flow, I shut down the line to see whether the conditions had changed. I turned to my backup man and said, "This doesn't look good at all. Let's back away a little." As I turned back around, I noticed the smoke "suck in" briefly and then heard an indescribable noise, it almost sounded like a freight train coming right at you. Suddenly, the brick wall in front of us had been blown out along with the roof of the building. It was apparent that a backdraft had occurred.

The force of the backdraft knocked me and my partner to our knees and showered us with bricks from the collapsed wall. I dropped the line and quickly moved to a safe area. The backdraft occurred so quickly that it was over before we had realized what happened.

Obviously, the effects of the backdraft caused a tremendous amount of damage and also made the fire building too unstable to perform interior suppression. The operation turned to a defensive attack utilizing ground monitors, master streams and handlines. The main concern now turned to protecting the exposures. The crew from Quint 5-6 entered the Bravo Exposure through the Charlie Side to check for extension. The first floor was clear; however, the second floor was a zero-visibility smoke condition. We pulled ceiling tiles and opened walls, and discovered that there in fact was minor extension to the building. We requested a handline to extinguish the small amount of fire, and did so without further damage. After several hours, the situation was placed under control and Quint 5-6 was released. There were no physical injuries to the crew or me. Just a lesson learned on reading smoke.

This account is by Lieutenant Mike Wilson:

Upon arriving at the station, the battalion chief and two firefighters were already there. Our engine was at the city garage for routine maintenance, leaving only our brush rig, so we mounted and responded. We had no self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) available to us. We arrived on scene and began to attack fire that was visible over the alternate entry door to H&R Block. The fire was visible over the entry door because the doorlight over this door was already gone.

Firefighter Ken Gralley hit the fire with the one-inch line from the brush truck while I began to force the door. I was unable to gain access to this door because it was blocked by an upright copier and fax machine. The ladder truck and Engine 6-1 were arriving at this time. On top of the fax machine were boxes of paper stacked nearly to the ceiling. I then moved on to take out the picture windows to attempt entry that way, but there were boxes of paper stacked there too.

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